Most of UNRWA's Foreign Staff in Gaza Evacuated to Israel After Death Threats

Staff threatened by refugee agency’s local employees, who face imminent layoffs after U.S. budget cuts

Amira Hass
Amira Hass
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A Palestinian woman walks past a closed health center run by UNRWA during a strike of all UNRWA institutions in Rafah, Gaza, September 24, 2018.
A Palestinian woman walks past a closed health center run by UNRWA during a strike of all UNRWA institutions in Rafah, Gaza, September 24, 2018.Credit: AFP
Amira Hass
Amira Hass

Nine of the 11 international employees of the United Nations refugee agency in the Gaza Strip were evacuated to Israel on Monday after receiving death threats from local employees who face dismissal.

In an emergency operation, the Erez crossing, which was closed for the Sukkot holiday, was opened briefly to allow the group through, said the Palestinian sources who reported the evacuation. One of the two employees who remained in the Strip was Matthias Schmale, the director of the UNRWA, the UN Relief and Works Agency in Gaza.

The decision to evacuate the international employees due to threats from Palestinians was unusual. In the past, foreign officials have been evacuated only in the event of Israeli military strikes or anticipated strikes. Even when Hamas officials have criticized the agency’s activities (such as sports and cultural events for mixed groups of boys and girls), leading to tensions, senior UNRWA employees were never evacuated.

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Palestinian UNRWA employees wear orange jumpsuits as they protest against job cuts, outside UNRWA HQ in Gaza City, September 19, 2018.
Palestinian UNRWA employees wear orange jumpsuits as they protest against job cuts, outside UNRWA HQ in Gaza City, September 19, 2018.Credit: \ IBRAHEEM ABU MUSTAFA/ REUTERS

According to the Palestinian news agency Sama, the decision was made in the wake of UN security assessments, after protesters blocked senior foreign UNRWA officials from entering their offices and issued explicit death threats.

The UN agency’s Palestinian employees have been demonstrating in the Gaza Strip for a few weeks, protesting against cuts to services and the layoffs or cancellation of the contracts of 1,000 people (out of a total of 13,000 salaried employees) who work for UNRWA in the Strip. The agency was forced into these belt-tightening moves after the United States cut funding to the organization. The jobs of 113 Palestinians were axed around two months ago, with the remainder expected to be laid off by the end of the year. According to the World Bank, unemployment in the Strip has reached 53 percent. The number of international employees was also cut, from 27 in 2017, to 11, according to the UN.

Dozens of UNRWA workers demonstrated Monday outside the Al Deira Hotel in Gaza City, where Schmale lives. Sama reported that they surrounded his security officer’s car after negotiations between the agency and the employees’ union broke down. The union called a two-day general strike, starting Tuesday, at all UNRWA institutions in the Strip. These include some 270 elementary schools, 21 medical centers and 12 food distribution points. These institutions serve the approximately 70 percent of Gazan residents who are registered refugees.

A report issued by the World Bank in late September noted that already in 2017, 53 percent of Gazans were living below the poverty line (compared to 38.8 percent in 2011). That number has risen since last year, after the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah cut its salary payments to PA employees in the Strip as well as welfare allowances to Gazans.

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